Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is an exiled and widely respected Kenyan playwright, critic and novelist who wrote the novel Matigari ma Njiruungi. He has been at the front of the struggle for democracy and social justice in Africa for cultural freedom and the creation of modern African literature in Indigenous languages. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times. Ngũgĩ was born in Kenya in 1938 and lived through the Mau Mau emergency of the 1950s. After graduating from one of two colonial schools open to Africans, he studied literature at Uganda’s Makarere University and then pursued graduate work at Leeds University in England. Until 1977, he was a lecturer in literature at Nairobi University, and he was also a fellow at Makarere and a visiting professor at Northeastern University. After a controversial play by a peer drew government criticism, Ngũgĩ’s novelization of it led to his arrest and detention in 1977. Amnesty International designated him a ‘prisoner of conscience’ and he was freed in 1978, after which he went into exile, first in the UK, and since 1990, in the US.
Ngũgĩ’s lecture asserted that the artist and the state are mutually antagonistic. Art, he said, has been about the search for freedom, while the state is about establishing control in the interests of the dominant class. He went on to outline several features of art that mean it will always be at war with the state: its ‘godlike’ aspect of creation; it symbolizes change whereas the state emphasizes stability; it is revolutionary and fluid whereas the state arrests motion to maintain the familiar; its determination to ask questions and leave room for discussion, whereas the state is full of answers and absolute truths. Further, he said, writing and art capture the views of individuals who otherwise do not have a voice, and this undermines authority. He also described the many ways the state attempts to control art and artists. For writers in Africa, he claims, there were only 3 possible choices: conform to the state, self-censor their work, or write freely and face the consequences. He believed that the writer must struggle with the people for a civil society against the power of the state to find the path to the freedom of the human soul.
Ngũgĩ’s lecture was held on March 26, 1992.